Our Obsession with Having Strong-Man Leadership is Un-American

If you’ve watched any the Republican debates this election cycle, you’ve probably heard one of the candidates say something about how we need a big strong leader in the White House.

This idea, that America needs a strongman type leader, is very popular right now among conservatives.

They really do think that all our country’s problems will magically go away if we have an alpha male (or female) “decider” in the White House.

And while acting or bragging about your alpha male status might get you airtime on Fox So-Called News, it doesn’t actually mean you’ll be a good president.

At least not according to what the Founding Fathers would have considered a good president.

Today’s Republicans have apparently forgotten this, but the Founders were republicans with a lower case “r” who were inspired by examples of democracy they saw all around them.

For example, much of the U.S. Constitution is based on the Iroquois Confederacy -- the five (later six) tribes who occupied territories from New England to the edge of the Midwest. It was a democracy with elected representatives, an upper and lower house, and a supreme court (made up entirely of women, who held final say in five of the six tribes).

The Framers hoped they could create something as successful out of the Thirteen Colonies.

As Benjamin Franklin noted to his contemporaries at the Constitutional Convention: "It would be a very strange thing if Six Nations of Ignorant Savages should be capable of forming a Scheme for such an Union and be able to execute it in such a manner, as that it has subsisted for Ages, and appears indissoluble, and yet a like union should be impracticable for ten or a dozen English colonies."

This kind of fascination with democracy -- in all its forms -- was unique in the early modern world.

Back in Europe, the sort of democracy the Framers were borrowing and inventing was considered unnatural. Philosophers like Thomas Hobbes argued that the world was better off with the rule of the few over the many, even if that meant that the many were impoverished. Without a strong and iron-fisted ruler, Hobbes wrote, there would be "no place for industry . . . no arts, no letters, no society."

Because Hobbes believed that ordinary people couldn't govern themselves, he believed that most people would be happy to trade personal freedom and economic opportunity for the ability to live in the relative safety and security of a strong-man-run state.

The Founders disagreed. They believed in the rights of ordinary people to self-determination, so they created a form of government where “We the People” rule.

leadership obviously had a role to play in this radical experiment in democracy, but the Founders said our representatives true power would come from the people they represented, not from bossing them around.

It’s not an accident that this is still more or less the case 228 years after the Founders got together to write the Constitution.

You see, Thomas Hobbes had it all wrong: Political democracy, not tyranny, is the natural state of humankind.

In fact, it’s the natural state of the entire animal kingdom.

Scientists used to think animal societies were ruled by alpha males. Recent studies, however, have found that while it's true that alphas have the advantage in courtship rituals, that's where their power ends. Their power, like the power of a president in democracy, is limited by the group.

For example, when deciding when to stop grazing and head toward a watering hole, red deer point their bodies in seemingly random directions, until it comes time to go drink. Then individuals begin to graze while facing one of several watering holes.

When a majority of deer are pointing toward one particular watering hole, they all move in that direction. More often than not, the alpha deer is actually one of the last to move toward the hole rather than one of the first.

Red deer aren’t the only species of animals to work things out democratically.

As biologist Tim Roper has shown, flocks of birds aren't following a leader but monitoring the motions of those around them for variations in the flight path; when more than 50 percent have moved in a particular direction--even if it's only a quarter-inch in one direction or another--the entire flock "suddenly" veers off that way.

It's the same with schools of fish and swarms of gnats, and that’s because everyone is better off when they get to participate in the group’s decision-making process. It reduces the risk of one crazy leader killing off the whole group as a result of one bad decision.

If only today’s Republicans understood that.

They literally don't have the wisdom of a gnat!

Their obsession with a having strong-man leader king -- or queen -- type figure in the White House is exactly what the Founders rebelled against.

It’s un-American, unnatural, and makes everyone less safe.

Let’s hope voters realize that and embrace real democracy before it’s too late.

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